To Help Others Achieve: An Advocate's Global Effort to Ensure Education and Health Equity
Master's Student in Health Informatics
March 16, 2020
I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and I moved to the United States in 2004 to pursue a degree in Accounting from the University of Florida. After completing my bachelors and master’s degrees, I got hired by Ernst & Young and worked for eight years as a certified public accountant in Chicago. In 2016 I decided my journey at Ernst & Young had come to an end. I packed my bags and moved to Kenya where I spent two years working on preventive healthcare and chronic diseases in Nairobi. When my sister landed a job at Michigan Medicine, I accompanied her to Ann Arbor to help her move. One thing led to another and I stayed in Michigan. That’s when I learned about the Health Informatics program and realized the work being done here was very in sync with what I was doing in Nairobi. I decided to return to school and enhance my skill set.
When I was 10, my mom passed away from a brain tumor. She had been in the hospital for two years, but her care was terrible. The health system had virtually no infrastructure, costs were high, and the doctor treating her was a fake—there are unfortunately many in the Nigerian health system. Shortly after that, my cousin was paralyzed and blinded from complications due to a routine meningitis vaccination, forcing her to abandon law school. She’s a poet now, but she struggled for a very long time. I know that if we had been in another country where healthcare was accessible, affordable, and high-quality, their stories would be different. It’s because of those two experiences that prevention and education are the issue that I am the most passionate about in health and public health work. Consumers should always have the information they need to manage their health and to prevent the issues that require them to seek care in the first place. Everyone should understand their health issues, and understand how they’re being treated in hospitals, clinics, and healthcare spaces.
Being from Nigeria, and having worked in Kenya, I’ve seen how health—which is a basic human right—limits a lot of people. I wanted to know what could be done to prevent that, so during my time back in Kenya in 2017 I spent six months doing research with local communities. I wanted to hear from them directly about the gaps they were facing in health and education, and I wanted to work with them to design possible solutions as a community. In the process, I learned that while instances of communicable diseases like HIV are decreasing in Kenya and other countries in Africa because of investment in education and research, non-communicable chronic diseases (NCDs) are on the rise. Between a lack of reliable information, an increase in Western food and agricultural practices, and a public perception that NCDs typically affect only the upper class, instances of hypertension, diabetes, and cancer are becoming more and more widespread, even amongst my family members. Saddled with high medication and healthcare costs, communities affected by NCDs are forced into poverty just to survive. So my focus once again became, "How do we prevent these diseases rather than react to them?" because the Nigerian and Kenyan health system are just not in a position right now to handle two burdens of disease.
More about Olawunmi
- Olawunmi is a student in the Masters of Health Informatics program, an interdisciplinary program offered by the School of Information, the School of Public Health and the Medical School. She says the program, "is very in sync with what I was doing in Nairobi and my interests in the health field."
While I was at the University of Florida, I became very sick but didn’t know why. For one full year, I was in and out of the hospital, and it had a detrimental impact on my education. Having a health issue when you’ve never really had one before, while you’re in a different country and by yourself—it causes trauma. That experience helped me realize that health has a huge impact on your education, because so many things are intertwined with it. I was fortunate enough to have family and technology to ensure that I could manage my healthcare and to guide me in seeking treatment for my health issues. But there are so many others who do not have those advantages, and their goals and ambitions become limited by their health. I wondered, "How do we help those people achieve and reach their life’s potential, to realize their hopes and dreams?" So in 2014 I started a nonprofit that focused on getting individuals from Africa funds for continuing education. I really believe in education. Once you’re educated, I believe you have the power to do anything.
I was a Dow Sustainability Fellow in 2019. I was part of a small team working with the Michigan State Parks to try and figure out how parks can have a positive impact on the health of Michigan populations. Having a diverse group of people on the team with different perspectives was really spectacular, and we worked together to model parks in ways that can impact health, especially as demographics change in the state. I was particularly focused on bringing a lot of perspective on health and interconnectivity to our discussions. In general, we need to look at parks, healthcare, equity, and mental health. How do we ensure that those with chronic diseases have access to parks in order to help maintain a healthy lifestyle? How do we structure parks so we’re not excluding groups of people and everyone can access green spaces in Michigan?
When I’m not in school, I love to travel. During the summer of 2019 I went to Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and Doha. I love outdoor stuff, in general. When I was in Rwanda, for example, I went volcanic hiking. I also love to cook and eat. And I work at the University of Michigan Campus Farm, within the Botanical Gardens. My primary role there is acting as the finance manager, helping with accounting and harvesting but also working farm shifts giving tours to classes from all over Michigan and working with volunteers. The farm itself is really sustainable, so much so that we now provide food to M-Dining for students. (If you’re eating a salad on campus, it probably came from us!) We’re also just starting a hub where off-campus students can purchase food and are working to get our foods in different spots across and beyond campus.
- Interested in public health? Learn more here.
- Learn more about our dual-degree in Health Informatics with the University of Michigan School of Information.
- Support research and engaged learning at the School of Public Health.